My questions to editors and proof-readers: how often have writers been too stubborn and egotistical to accept your advice? When have they ignored the value of active tense or fallen into the trap of using helping verbs? And why won’t they include that valuable epiphany about the world that fits in perfectly with the plot?
My questions to writers: how often have you desperately tried to clarify an editor’s advice, only for them to get angry with you? When have they stuck more to rules than to their artistic sensibilities? And why do they keep trying to make your story into something that it’s not, stripping away the things that inspired you to write it in the first place?
We’ve all been there, and these things have all caused needless but almost insurmountable conflict. Who is right: the writer or the writing adviser? The answer is neither. These questions above exemplify the stereotypes, politics, and personal agendas that we subconsciously implement in many of our writing critiques, which are some of the most damaging things to the creative process. Yet many of us don’t even notice when we use them.
I noticed recently that the stereotypical idea of a creative writer was drastically different from reality. In TV and movies, the stereotypical writer is a pompous and stubborn dreamer, who believes that her work is god’s gift to mankind and will not hear otherwise. However, in my entire time writing I can count people who match this description on a single hand. The vast majority of writers that I have come across are anxious, paranoid introverts who can barely perk up the courage to even show their writing to others, and become extremely driven to scrap or rewrite their entire project as soon as a hint of a flaw is spotted (or imagined) somewhere.
And yet, for years I expected most writers to act this way, and to be extremely stubborn when it came to taking criticism. Stereotypes are a powerful thing, and this enables them to do a lot of damage. Specifically, by thinking of writers as stubborn dreamers who won’t listen to reason, editor-writer discussions often devolve into matters of pride. I have seen countless editors disrespect their writers’ honor by claiming that they are too blinded by pride to see the flaws in their own work, and that it would do them some good to be taken down a peg. Editors often go into these meeting ready for a fight, because they expect to get one, and will imagine one as soon as their writers show any sign of not taking their advice.
Similarly, editors have their own stereotypes to grapple with from writers. Some editors are seen as being obsessed with profits and scornful of new ideas, ignorant about the projects that they critique. Or even worse, they can be seen as incompetent writers who needed to find an alternative job. But this is similarly not true: editors volunteer their time because they genuinely want to help, or they take it on as a full-time job because they are passionate about books. If someone wanted to make a lot of money or hated creativity, they could go to Hollywood or become a TV producer. But writers who think that their editors are envious of their abilities or don’t care about the project are less likely to listen to valuable advice.
In short, stereotypes are pervasive in the writing world and do absolutely nothing to help stories succeed. Perhaps movies and TV shows think that it’s more interesting to include a prideful, head-in-the-clouds writer and nasty, bitter editors than to portray them accurately. But no matter what the reason we hold these stereotypes, we must be mindful of them, and stop ourselves whenever we begin to give into them.
If you’ve ever had a taste of English academia, you’re aware of some of the major political issues around which people draw lines in the sand: discovery vs outline writing, active vs passive tense, strong verbs vs uniform verbs, etc. I don’t pretend to know about every political issue in writing, but I do know that employing them for creative works is rarely a good thing. These political debates are often grounded in good advice, but lose their beneficence when people heatedly try to apply them universally.
Here is a relatively innocent and inconsequential example: strong vs uniform verbs. When I was a child, my dad told me to never use the same verb for dialogue twice on the same page. If at the top of the page Adela says something, then she must later exclaim, echo, gasp, or growl the rest of her dialogue for the page. The same went for questions: asked could not be used twice in close proximity, but had to be sprinkled in around inquired, questioned, and queried. This is a political camp that aims for diversity, and it is grounded in good advice. Writing can indeed get boring if its vocabulary is too small, and switching up the verbs used for dialogue can add to tone and flavor. A character growling something is very different from a character saying something.
However, this can get quickly out of hand, namely when a character is using the same tone repeatedly. If Tomas is angry, then he is going to growl most of his dialogue, and it isn’t doing the work any justice to pretend that he’s doing anything else. A thesaurus can only take you so far. Most people instinctively realize this: variety is nice, strong verbs add color, and sometimes a word needs to be used more than once.
But the issue here is politics. Politics puts people into camps, and those camps can blind people to the exceptions to their rule. Even if a character is very clearly yelling instead of booming, people in this political camp will absolutely insist that changing a second instance of yelling to booming will always make the dialogue better.
To continue with this example, there the strong verb camp’s mirror image: the journalism camp. Newspapers traditionally have a limited amount of space on which to print their stories (though the Internet is changing that), so to save space journalists traditionally leave out their Oxford commas and state things as concisely as possible. Additionally, news is meant to be objective, and the use of strong verbs like hiss or murmur or hollar can change the way the audience views a particular quote. So newspapers tend to have the rule to only ever use the words said or asked, sometimes even omitting the latter.
You might be thinking that no one would ever think to apply this same logic to creative writing, which requires fanciful tone and doesn’t have such a premium on space. While this is true, some have employed the same rule for a different reason: “Your dialogue should be strong enough to convey tone without the use of a strong verb.”
I have had a work or two of mine pulled in either direction by either of these camps. One proof-reader wanted all instances of adverbs and repeats to be scratched and replaced with something I dig out of a Thesaurus. Another reader wanted all instances of any verb that wasn’t said or asked to be completely eliminated, as using strong verbs was a crutch. Both of these political camps have their own merits, but the surprisingly amount of anger that people experience when debating issues even as small as this makes people forget that some rules are relative and depend on the situation.
But this can especially apply to more consequential examples, which have major effects on the outcome of a creative piece. For instance, there is a camp that believes that all science fiction should be “hard” science fiction — in other words, have real, solid science behind it that could theoretically work in real life, given a few decades. There is a polar opposite camp that believes using any real facts in a book isn’t creative at all, and should be reserved for textbooks. People who join these camps get as worked up about these rules as Republicans and Democrats do about abortion, and will go as far as trying to change a book’s genre or theme in order to pull it into line with their world views. My advice for writers? Familiarize yourself with these political camps, but don’t take them too seriously. It’s important for you to be able to spot the moment when your editor gives you advice based on prescriptive rules and not an actual problem with your writing, but for God’s sake don’t get sucked into all the madness yourself.
This is the one that I have personally grappled with the most, both as a writer and as an editor: when editing, you are doing this for the writer, not for yourself. You are trying to help the book become its true self, not use it as a stage for being didactic.
How are agendas different from political camps? Firstly, political camps tend to be occupied by an entire group of people, whereas personal agendas tend to be — well — personal. Secondly, an agenda is what a proof-reader wants to turn the story into, regardless of what vision the author has for the story, and does not have to apply to every book on the planet as a prescriptive rule.
What are some examples? Most often, it’s in the form of the editor becoming inspired by an idea, while the author does not think the idea belongs. I was once writing a trilogy where everyone in a society was a twin, so I wanted to come up with some sort of duality: “there are two kinds of people…” I was wracking my brains to figure one out, and consulted my favorite editor. He suggested, “Those who contribute to society, and those who leach off of society.” I firstly didn’t think that this was true, and secondly knew that it wouldn’t fit into a high-fantasy YA novel. I wasn’t excited by the idea, but he was. I had come to him to brainstorm, but after his initial idea, he did not contribute anything else besides it, and adamantly refused to think of other ideas when I asked him to. For those of you who are curious, a few weeks later, I settled on left-brained versus right-brained people, which just barely won out over introverts versus extroverts.
Here is one instance where I caught myself almost imposing a personal agenda onto a writer just this past Thursday night. I asked the writer what her book meant to her, and what she thought were the essential parts of the work — the things without which it would become a different book entirely. One of the things that she listed was the theme: “One person making one decision can make a difference.” While I do often believe this is true, from what I had gleaned from the rest of her book, I did not think it was true. I did not think that her main character would be able to make a large difference with one swift motion. However, that is my personal agenda, not hers. Disagreeing with the message of a book is one of the most common ways for someone to have a personal agenda, and one of the hardest to resist.
Agendas, I believe, are particularly difficult to dislodge from our critiques, because our critiques are based on our own personal reactions to a story. The authors are supposed to ask us what we think is wrong with the story, what we think is missing, and what we think should be changed. Editors are supposed to ask themselves, “What do I want to read?” But while the line between giving advice and imposing a personal agenda is a blurred one, the line is still there. If I desperately want to read a Percy-Jackson-esque book that deals with Chinese mythology, that does not give me the right go ask someone writing a textbook about Chinese mythology to change it into a children’s fiction series. Editing is about helping the author, not helping the editor.
These three mistakes can bog down writing discussions or make them downright unpleasant. They take the conversation or writing to places it does not need to be, and the story often suffers because of them. Stereotypes, politics, and personal agendas show their faces in a significant proportion of writing workshops, likely because we hold them dear to our hearts or they are based on advice that has worked for us in the past. They are also instincts that have been hammered into us (or that we’ve hammered into ourselves), which makes them incredibly difficult to resist. I think that it’s impossible for someone to not fall prey to any of these three mistakes at least once, but becoming more aware of them and their dangers is the first step on the path to ridding ourselves of them.